Single mothers face many challenges, and Cindy Phan of Joliet is no exception.
So when she decided to overcome her fear of failure and return to school three years ago, she did so for two very good reasons.
Her future. And the future of Justin Thai, her son, now 6.
“I had the realization that working part-time or full-time in restaurants and retail for the rest of my life was not sustainable,” Phan said.
In May, Phan, 26, received her associate degree from Joliet Junior College. Earlier this month, she received two awards from Phi Theta Kappa: Leader of Distinction and Outstanding Officer.
Marc Kaufman, assistant professor of English and adviser for the Phi Theta Kappa chapter at JJC, said Phan was active in the chapter in many ways, including helping to start an on-campus thrift store (Phi Theta Phashion), moving a suicide awareness project forward, creating a haunted house fundraiser at JJC, helping plan the chapter’s first formal event and arranging “bonding and fellowship” retreats for the office teams.
“She is a single mom and she took on a lot of extra work herself,” Kaufman said.
Next spring, Phan will start nursing classes at University of Illinois in Chicago. Her ultimate goal is pediatrics. Nursing, Phan said, is the first step.
But to attain her goals, Phan had to let two things go. One was her passion for the arts, which she hopes to revisit one day. The second was the daily care of her son during her last year of school, when her parents moved back to Chicago.
“Then I had to start working,” Phan said. “I had to pay for my school and I also had to pay for my bills and my living space, my apartment. I knew there would be no time to take care of Justin. I would not be able to take him to school and there would be no one to take care of him when I worked the night shift. So my parents took him to Chicago for a year.”
Was it hard?
“It was very, very hard, not just for me, but for him as well,” Phan said. “But I think it took longer for me to adjust to the change.”
Phan’s intention when she started at JJC in the summer of 2015 was to work hard, study hard and take care of her son.
“I was a very shy person then,” Phan said. “I was not a social butterfly. I did not like to go out of my comfort zone.”
But then two members of student government approached Phan and she joined in that fall, eventually serving in public relations, then as secretary and finally vice president, she said.
In the fall of 2015, Phan also learned about Alpha Lambda Phi, the current chapter of Phi Theta Kappa at Joliet Junior College. Phan, already overwhelmed, joined anyway, because of, initially, the scholarship opportunities.
“Being a single mom, you want to take all the help with school you can get,” Phan said. “Plus, I wanted to graduate without any debt at all. Anything that benefits me in terms of finances, I’m up for. But I did learn to love Pi Theta Kappa as well.”
She was inducted in the spring of 2016. She’s served her chapter as vice president of leadership, vice president of service and president. She learned how to delegate responsibility and encourage accountability in others, Phan said.
“I met a lot of like-minded people,” Phan said. “People who are career-driven. People who want to make a difference. People who want to go out there and do more than just the normal day-to-day life. I want a lot of things. For me, education is the beginning. I don’t think I ever want to stop learning.”
That last year, Phan worked at night, attended school by day and participated in Phi Theta Kappa the rest of the time.
“I sacrificed sleep,” Phan said.
Phan is now a member of the Illinois Regional Alumni Association. She defined the organization as “the people who can’t let go of Phi Theta Kappa after they graduate.” Phan said alumni give support to chapters to help them grow.
“I don’t want Phi Theta Kappa to end as I graduate. The organization has done so much for me,” Phan said. “It’s helped me grow as a leader. Giving back is something important to me.”
Phan, who said she is “very much a city girl,” will return to Chicago this fall to spend time with her son (“He’s a mama’s boy,” she said) before she begins the nursing program in the spring.
Her new goals are to complete the nursing program in three years, study abroad and later use her skills in other countries.
Phan also hopes to visit New Zealand, if only to fulfill a childhood dream of visiting the country, she said. And she hopes to start her career as an emergency room nurse.
“That’s where you learn everything, where you get the most experience,” Phan said. “If you work in a clinic, you will learn new things. But when you work in an ER, you never know what will be thrown at you. Every day is new and exciting.”
In addition to her involvement at JJC, Phan said she also volunteered 200 hours in the last two years through Feed My Starving Children, Daybreak Center in Joliet and gift-wrapping at the mall during the holidays.
“I like to spread holiday cheer, you know?” Phan said.